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Russia and the Democracies: Is Russia a Foe of the Liberal Democratic Order?

photo-rus-and-democracyby Gordon M. Hahn

The ‘Washington consensus’ on Russia – a consensus now being challenged by the Trump Administration – assumes and fosters the idea that Moscow seeks to destroy the ‘liberal democratic order.’ One of the U.S. intelligence agencies’ reports on Russia’s alleged hacking of the Democratic National Committee and its strategic communications’ influence campaign during the 2016 presidential campaign noted: “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order” (my emphasis, http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf ). This line was repeated on the eve of Trump’s inauguration by outgoing Vice President Joseph Biden. Some utilize this line to argue that the ‘new Cold War’ is not so different from the original in that just as there was an ideological component in the old Cold War – communism versus capitalism and democracy – so too there is an ideological component to the new one – authoritarianism versus democracy.

But is it true that Russia seeks to destroy the ‘US-led liberal democratic order’ or the U.S.?

We can dismiss this in more demagogical fashion using a most obvious fact – that if the U.S. were to disappear, the global economy would crash and so would that of Russia, leading to chaos and/or a real dictatorship that would sweep away Russian President Vladimir Putin and his soft authoritarian system. But let’s treat the claim of an ideological conflict with some respect and analyze its veracity.

One question that needs to be asked is whether there exists a ‘US-led liberal democratic order.’ One can argue certainly that the Atlantic community of democracies under NATO and the European Union constitutes such an order, but it is hardly a global one and does not include many of the world’s democracies. If one is to include all the world’s democracies in this ‘order’ or community, then we would include among them such non-NATO and non-EU democracies such as India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, etc. Here a problem for the argument that Russia is intent on destroying the democratic order arises, for Moscow has excellent relations with many democracies, especially the non-NATO and non-EU democracies.

If Moscow sought to oppose democracies, its relationship with a democratic power like India would be an antagonistic one. In accordance with the view of many Westerners, we ought to see Russia challenging Indian power, encouraging China and Pakistan to gang up on the democratic interloper on the subcontinent and fomenting ultra-nationalists to destabilize the country. Moscow’s partnerships and alliances with China and other states would be marshaled to subvert India’s democratic stability and territorial integrity rather than foster India’s development.

Instead, we see Moscow having close and ever improving relations with New Delhi. Rather than countering India through a strategic partnership with China, as Moscow has practiced in relations with the U.S., Moscow has joined New Delhi -and Beijing together with it – in BRICS association. That association’s most recent summit in October saw Russia and India sign a series of military-industrial and civilian economic contracts, including attack helicopter and nuclear plant deals. India is an observer member of the Sino-Russian-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Given New Delhi’s tense relations with Beijing, this integrative achievement is attributable to Russian diplomacy and comity with the world’s largest democracy. Moreover, Moscow has been careful not to step on India’s toes as it develops post-Cold War relations with India’s inveterate foe, Pakistan. Moscow has sterling relations with the world’s largest democracy, because India unlike the Western democracies, is not seeking to expand a military alliance into Russia’s sphere of influence. It has neither encouraged nor supported illegal, revolutionary seizures of power in states neighboring Russia.

Moscow has developed good relations with a number of other Asian democracies. Russia’s relations with with U.S. ally South Korea are good. Despite the U.S. deployment of an anti-missile defense system in South Korea, Moscow did not raise the issue at the September 2016 Eastern Economic Forum in Russia’s Vladivostok and President Putin met with President Park Geun-Hye. As a result, Seoul signed some 20 economic agreements with Moscow at the summit, despite its being forced to adhere to the U.S.-imposed sanctions regime to a significant degree. Nevertheless, South Korea continues to express a desire to expand economic ties with Moscow, and President Park announced at the summit that South Korea wants to sign a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). All this promises that Russian-South Korean trade and overall ties will continue to expand as in recent years.

Even Moscow’s relationship with democratic close U.S. ally Japan exhibits few tensions—far fewer than Moscow’s with Washington, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw and Riga, despite Russia’s and Japan’s failure to settle the sensitive, seven decades-long territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands left over from World War II. Moreover, Putin’s recent visit to Tokyo he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe achieved a significant breakthrough in the Kuril Islands dispute over the Kuril Islands. For the first time, Moscow and Tokyo agreed to engage in joint economic activity on the islands and declared their intent to do so as a first step in confidence-building towards resolving the long-standing territorial dispute.

Even democracies in Russia’s immediate neighborhood – in contrast to the post-Ukraine crisis claim that Moscow will not tolerate a democracy on its borders because it puts Putin’s soft authoritarianism at risk – thrive despite the proximity of the ‘Russian bear.’ The Baltic states are democratic and were left free by Moscow to join NATO and the EU.

Although not yet a fully consolidated democracy, Kyrgyzstan has been functioning democratically with several handovers of power through elections since the 2010 Tulip Revolution 2.0. Kyrgyzstan sits firmly in Russia’s backyard and historical sphere of influence. Under the last tsars it already was part of Russia. It was one of five Central Asian SSRs under the USSR, becoming independent in 1991. Moreover, post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan is a very weak state potentially vulnerable to any Russian machinations, but through several political crises, tulip and anti-tulip revolutions, Moscow remained impartial to the internal power struggle. It refrained from attempting to install a puppet regime and acted only to limit instability. After stability was ensured, the Kremlin established good relations with new pro-democratic leaders. Thus, Bishkek retains friendly relations with Moscow. It is a member of three Russia-led international organizations: the EEU, SCO, and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

In sum, Russia is not a priori anti-democratic—opposed to the democracies, democratic capitalist systems, or even the ‘liberal-democractic order’ per se—in its foreign policy. This is true regarding both its far and near abroad.., for now. In contrast to the ideological and idealist USSR, Moscow does not aim to undermine and subvert democratic systems in general or as a goal in and of itself or to refrain from developing mutually advantageous relations with the world’s democracies. If it did, then Moscow’s good relationships with a host of Freedom House-approved democracies need to be explained.

Russia’s gripes with the Western democracies are not rooted in any unbridled Russian antipathy towards democracy. Rather, they are geopolitical, not ideological. The crux of the matter is a tectonic of conflict created by contention between the West’s, in particular Washington’s, claim to a global sphere of influence—a benevolent global hegemony—and Russia’s to a regional one in central Eurasia, at most throughout Eurasia writ large. It is particularly worthy of note that the democracies with which Moscow has good relations are not members of NATO; it is with NATO and especially those of its members who most strongly push for the advance of world’s most powerful military alliance to Russia’s borders that Moscow problems. It is NATO expansion that drives both any antagonism Moscow bears against democracies and growing U.S.-Russian tensions, and this will continue to be the case so as long as NATO persists in expanding east.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an analyst and Advisory Board member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago, Ill.), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles, Calif.), http://www.aigeo.org; a contributing expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; a senior researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group (San Jose, Calif.); and an analyst and consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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